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US authorities probing the “flash crash” that rattled global stocks in 2010 have spent years trying to understand the factors behind the sudden US market plunge.
On Tuesday they zeroed in on an unassuming interwar house in the suburban heart of a working class Indian and Bangladeshi community 17 miles west of the City, London’s financial heart.
There, they allege, Navinder Singh Sarao made millions gaming the market from a company registered at his parents’ Hounslow house.
Neighbours say they were never alerted to the huge wealth the Department of Justice claims he was amassing until the police arrived to arrest him in the middle of the UK day at about 12.45 on Tuesday.
The trader was unmarried and rarely seen, they said. Harmesh Johal, who lives a few doors down from Mr Sarao, said he had never met the 36-year-old, but expressed surprise “because the Saraos are a very good family”.
“I’m not sure about the son though I’ve spoken to him once or twice or so, but he’s not interested really [in talking],” another neighbour said. “The parents are humble people, they go to the gurdwara [Sikh temple] every Sunday.”
Other neighbours painted a starkly different picture from that in the DoJ’s criminal complaint, which says Mr Sarao set up companies in Nevis and Anguilla to shelter his assets from tax.
“He drives that broken down green car, it belongs to his parents,” said a resident from across the road, who lives next door to Mr Sarao’s brother. “His mother works part-time in a pharmacy and his father is retired. They’re quite tight [for money] I’d say, they’re not going on holidays or anything like that.”
“It’s a close-knit environment, to know someone who does something like that is surprising,” said an airport worker from the same street.
Explaining his trading techniques to UK authorities last year, Mr Sarao claimed he was “an old school point and click prop trader” who had “always been good with reflexes and doing things quick”.
By his own admission to the UK regulator, he traded large volumes of E-minis in large lot orders, but he said the trades were genuine and his orders “were 100 per cent at risk, 100 per cent of the time”, the Department of Justice affidavit said. He made about $40m in all between 2010 and 2014 trading the popular E-mini contracts, the DoJ calculated.
However, his activity attracted unwelcome attention from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, which monitors the standards of traders who, like Mr Sarao, buy seats on the exchange. In response to the exchange questioning some repeated unusual activity around the opening of trading, Mr Sarao told his broker in an email that he had “just called” the CME “and told ‘em to kiss my ass”.
Despite Mr Sarao’s claims of manual dexterity, the affidavit claimed that in the nine months before the flash crash, he had sought and received assistance from an independent software company in customising an off-the-shelf automated trading programme.
The software allowed him to simultaneously place numerous orders at different price points and automatically cancel those orders as the market approached them and before they could be executed, the affidavit said.
On the day of the flash crash, US authorities allege, this meant that a single trader from Hounslow accounted for between 20 and 29 per cent of the entire E-mini sellside order book on the world’s largest futures exchange.
This article has been amended to correct Mr Sarao’s age